Traveller’s Tale: Top Things to Do in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
With a landscape that looks a bit like Mars, San Pedro de Atacama in Chile's far north might not sound all that inviting as a travel destination — but it has an arid beauty that's unsurpassed. Regular contributor Vanessa O'Hanlon found solitude in the saddle while traversing these ancient plains.
After a long haul flight, twenty-two hours on a bus, and an hour-long taxi ride — I’m buzzing as we finally arrive in San Pedro de Atacama.
Perhaps it’s the surrounding desert’s rich mineral deposits putting out positive energy, the high altitude, or the sheer drama of the landscape; whatever it is, I can’t get enough of it!
Arriving by land supposedly dulls the effects of the altitude here on the Altiplano of Chile’s Atacama Desert. But at 2,400 metres above sea level, the thinness of the air and the beauty of this desolate region still manage to take my breath away.
Top Oz Tours offers a great range of Chile day tours, guided experiences, and attraction tickets and passes. There are no booking or credit card fees when you book through us, and you’ll have access to the widest choice of activities and most competitive prices.
The small village of San Pedro De Atacama is made up of a network of narrow streets. Despite having a population of just 2,000 people, the presence of restaurants and travel agencies indicates that this is a hotspot for wandering gringos like me.
The Atacama Desert features soaring mountain peaks, deep canyons, sprawling salt lakes, and sweeping sand dunes. This is one of the oldest and driest non-polar deserts in the world, and due to the topography many weather stations have never recorded a drop of rain. The surrounding mountain ranges block most of the moisture coming in from the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. However, in 2011 an extreme Antarctic cold front broke through and dumped 80 centimetres of snow on the region. Then in 2012, the Altiplano winter saw rare flooding.
Thanks to the crystal clear sky, dry dessert air, and a lack of light pollution, San Pedro de Atacama is probably best known for its stargazing opportunities. You’ll need to rug up in winter; the trade-off for those wondrous skies is a minimum overnight temperature of below zero. The days are warm all year round and as I head out into the desert on horseback, the glare hits me despite my trusty sunglasses.
Following a dusty path by the Rio San Pedro, we travel about three kilometres out of town before arriving at the old archaeological site of Pukara de Quitor. It sits on the summit of a hill in the middle of nowhere. Built by the Atacameno in the 12th century, the pre-Incan-era fortress was used as a defence against invading forces.
Along the way, my tour guide points out the Nayara Alto Atacama Resort. It’s completely at one with its natural setting, and only when I’m up close can I make out its external design. For one night of complete tranquillity here — surrounded by nothing but the desert and a sky full of twinkling stars — you can expect to pay between five and eight hundred US dollars.
The trail takes us through a dark ravine. My horse Dream is a little hesitant and I guide her with care through some shallow water and up to Devil’s Canyon — or as the locals call it — Quebrada del Diablo. We weave our way silently through the infinite landscape, completely immersed in the grandeur of mother nature. I feel so small against this vast terrain of escarpments, strange and colourful rock formations, and barren plains that stretch all the way to a horizon defined by mountain peaks.
Later, Dream enjoys the freedom of galloping down the enormous sand dunes of Valle De La Muerte (Death Valley) — and I have to admit — so do I. The light wind shifts the sand constantly, re-sculpting the land’s surface. Ahead, some bodies lie stretched out on the sand. They are sandboarders resting before the hard walk back to the top of their dune of choice. I take the opportunity to give sandboarding a go. The task of carrying the board up the dune is exhausting, but results in an exhilarating trip down!
After a full day of horse riding and sandboarding, it’s time to relax under the almost clear pinkish sunset at Valle De La Luna (Moon Valley) — aptly named for its uncanny resemblance to the moon. As the sun goes down, our tour guide prepares a round of pisco sours (a cocktail that originated in neighbouring Peru). We offer a salute to clear skies, starry eyes, and our adventures in this faraway place.
Browse our range of San Pedro de Atacama tours and experiences here.
Do you have any tips for top things to do in San Pedro de Atacama? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Additional images: Bigstock
About the writer
Vanessa O’Hanlon is an Australian television news and weather presenter, and an avid traveller. Her travels began with a flight to Egypt, a visit to the pyramids and a camel ride, and she knew there was no turning back. Since then, Vanessa’s backpack has seen a thing or two — from exploring relatively untouched Bhutan to braving the cold on the peaks of Mount Kilimanjaro.